The shame counter

It’s 10 degrees outside. It’s cold. It’s wet. The wind is blowing and the rain is puddling. Last week, it was snowing. And I was cold then, too. Two weeks ago, I was walking a beach, contemplating an ice cream. Nothing wowey there except that I hadn’t known there was a beach in Barcelona to walk on.

My geography is atrocious. I don’t give much thought to where places are situated on a world map. I’m still getting over the trauma of seeing a sign welcoming me to Europe as I drove from the airport towards Istanbul. I’d no clue where I’d been. I hadn’t even realised I’d been on another continent. It’s sad. But such is life.

I was in Barcelona a number a years ago and knew it had a harbour. And boats. Big boats. Very very big boats. Very big boats from the Cayman Islands, from Malta, from Trinidad. But I never realised it had a beach, nine of them, in fact, all blue flag beaches stretching along its 4.5 km of coastline.  I think the one we hit was Barceloneta, close enough to the Olympic village. Barcelona is one of the few cities to get anything lasting from the Olympics. It got the beaches. Back in 1992. And some odd looking buildings that were used to house the athletes and administrative staff  and are now housing companies and residents.



The landmark crooked tower is really an art installation commemorating the 1992 Olympics called L’Estel Ferit (the wounded star or the injured comet). Am not quite sure how it celebrates a neighbourhood that was traditionally populated by sailors. Perhaps the four steel cubes are stacked to look like a lighthouse?

But, back to the beach. It was a hive of activity. Temperatures hovered about 20 degrees and the tops were off, the legs were out, and the beach babes were bathing. Older men sat around playing dominoes as the kids climbed the climbing frame and the young hipsters pulled out the kettle bells and did their thing. The creative types were building sandcastles. Most everyone else was sipping coffee or drinking wine at one of the many beach-side cafés.  We had a late breakfast at the Club Nautica Catalunya, a beach-front café with a terrace looking out onto the sea that cost an extra 10% to sit on. There’s nowt free (or very little) in this city. But it was all rather lovely.

Alongside all this activity, African traders plied their wares. Fake handbags, cotton throws and tablecloths, sunglasses – the usual fare laid neatly on white sheets. I was taken by yet another tower, this one switched LED number displays from 2016 to 2017. I looked at the numbers, 5079 and 663, respectively. And I wondered what they might relate to. They seemed a little high to be deaths at sea. But that’s what they were. I was shocked. The Barcelona shame counter started ticking in June 2016, backdated to 2015 to track the number of refugees who died trying to reach the city’s shores. Som i serem citutat refugi (We are and always will be a refugee city), it says, adding that ‘this isn’t just a number, these are people.’

A quick glance at the Barcelona Refuge City plan suggests it’s an impressive one. And yet when I saw the traders, standing with ropes wrapped around their wrists, ready to cinch their groundsheet and haul away their goods the minute the police appeared… I did wonder a little. But perhaps it’s the lot of street traders everywhere. The Barcelona boys are just better prepared.





The kiss of death

The origins of words and phrases are as fascinating as the words themselves. Some say the term the kiss of death grew from Mafia lore where, if the Don kissed anyone on the lips, it was time for them to sort out their will. More likely though, it refers to Judas betraying Jesus when he identified Him by kissing Him (Matthew 26: 47–49).

The Kiss of Death is immortalised in a 1947 film noir directed by Henry Hathaway based on a story by Eleazar Lipsky (who, if you’re fond of your trivia, served as legal counsel to the Mystery Writers of America). Later, too, in 1995, there was a loose remake of the original, starring Samuel L Jackson and Nicholas Cage (note to self to watch it, as I’m quite fond of the pair of them). It’s also the title of a rap album and rap by American rapper Jadakiss. Can’t say I’d heard of him or that I was particularly taken with the rapping (am I even getting the terminology right here?). But, of far more interest to me, is that it’s also the title of a sculpture. 

Topping the grave of textile manufacturer Josep Llaudet Soler, El Petó de la Mort can be found in Poblenou Cemetery in Barcelona. It was created in 1930 by either Jaume Barba or Joan Fontbernat. I can’t find any information on why this is disputed, except perhaps that as Barba has actually signed another sculpture in the same cemetery, it might seem odd that he didn’t sign this one, too. Or perhaps it was designed by one and carved by the other. Who knows.

Said to have inspired Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, the tomb carries a quotation from Catalan poet, Jacint Verdaguer. The unattributed translation I found reads:

His young heart is thus extinguished. The blood in his veins grows cold. And all strength has gone. Faith has been extolled by his fall into the arms of death. Amen.

Dating back to 1775, the cemetery was the first to be built outside the city walls. Destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1813, it was rebuilt and opened again in 1819. It is interesting in that it is a cemetery in two parts. At the front, are the burial niches – seemingly for the hoi polloi. At the back are the individual tombs and the mausoleums, eternal home to the city’s wealthy.

The monuments include one by Italian sculptor Fabiesi of an angel carrying a young girl up to heaven. And while this suited the blue-sky day, I would imagine the El Petó de la Mort would look even more striking against stormy grey clouds.











As in Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón in Havana, this cemetery, too, has its pilgrimage site. Francesc Canals Ambrós, who died at the age of 22, is better known as el Santet (the little saint)He was first buried in one of the higher niches, but as this was impossible to reach, he was moved lower down. The 12 niches around him are full of mementos left by his followers – those who believe that he works miracles. In front, there is a mailbox of sorts, where believers post their petitions. In life, this young shop assistant reportedly gave his wages to the poor and collected old clothes to keep them warm in winter.

After his death (either from TB at home or in a fire saving his neighbours) those who’d come into the shop where he worked, started to drop by. Belief quickly grew that el Santet would grant wishes as long as they didn’t relate to money. And like Havana, there’s a ritual to be observed.

You say a prayer, post your petition, and then walk to the right of the niche without retracing your steps. When you get to the end of the row of niches, look back to look at the tomb in the distance. This is said to confirm your favour. And, once you’ve received whatever it is you prayed for, you need to return to give thanks. Judging from the flowers, it would appear to work.

Elsewhere, the gypsy graves, with their flowers are a colourful respite from the stonework.  Other graves have pictures of those interred, showing them as them as they were in their prime. One I was particular taken with, and a marked changed from the usual homage to holiness, was of a young man, with a beer bottle in his hand, cigarettes in his pocket and his sunglasses tucked into his shirt. It marks the grave of two brothers (perhaps?), Antonio and Juan Luis, but as to which one stands guard, I’m not sure. It’s definitely a deviation from the norm. But will it catch on?

If you’re interested in cemeteries, check out this great blog that has a wealth of information on opening times, locations, transport, and who’s buried where.

Where’s Gaudí gone?

Mention Barcelona and the first person to come to mind, if you’re not a football fan, is most likely Antoni Gaudí. Any fridge magnet collection is bound to include one inspired by the architect. He’s synonymous with the city. But we walked miles in search of his work and came up short.

Born back in 1852 to a coppersmith, young Gaudí knew he what he wanted to be when he grew up. Part of the Catalan Modernista movement, his distinctive style wasn’t long in coming to the fore. He set geometric shapes in pattern brick and stone and rather fancied both flowers and reptiles. [His salamander in Park Güell, is probably his best-selling fridge magnet.]

Showcasing his work at the Paris World’s Fair in 1878 brought him some attention and a commission to work on the Güell Estate and Güell Palace in Barcelona. We tried to visit but they had sold out for the day. A park. Selling out. Madness. We had to content ourselves walking the free space and looking down on those who’d been better prepared, catching only glimpses  of the great man’s work. Be warned. Book in advance.

In 1893, Gaudí was tasked with building a cathedral – Basilica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Familia (Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family). The plans had already been drawn up and construction had begun when he took over, but he managed to make it his own. It’s still a work in progress – more than 120 years later. But it’s coming along. It’s another venue that needs advance booking, though.

Gaudí died when hit by a trolley in June of  1926. He was nearly 74. It is hoped that the Sagrada Familia will be finished by 2026, to mark the 100th anniversary of his death. We can but wait and see.

We went in search of  Casa Vincens, what’s billed as his most famous and best ever. And we found it. Under renovation. And I really wanted to see Casa Mila but the La Pedrera Google gave us wasn’t quite what we had set out to find. We did stumble across Casa Batlló. Mind you, it’d have been hard to miss, with the hordes of picture-snapping tourists queuing up outside. Pretty spectacular though.

 I’d looked to see if any other architect of note was hiding in Gaudí’s shadow and a Josep Puig i Cadafalch popped up. Turns out, he designed the Casa Amattler right next door to Casa Batlló. We found this out after we’d traipsed the back streets hitting various shops and such by the same name but they never quite measured up. I wonder if Josep’s rocking around heaven wondering what life might have been like had he been born a century earlier … or later.

We gave it time – the best part of a day. But we hadn’t done our homework. We hadn’t plotted our route or signed up for a tour. I didn’t want to be constrained by someone else’s timetable. So we wandered the streets and happened across many other equally stunning buildings that would require time to research. I contented myself with a look.

And we found the smallest theatre in the world, El Teatre més Petits del Món. Set in the home of pianist Luis de Arquer [carrer de l’Encarnació 25], a gig here is now top of my list of things to do, should a return visit to the city be on the cards. It would be, according to the New York Times, the most enchanting musical evening the city has to offer. 

Gaudí’s work is world famous. He’s quite the ambassador for Spain. His style has influenced many artists from all over (Fuster in Havana, Cuba, is an example). But I wonder if you can get too much of a good thing. He’s been hijacked by the tourist board and the souvenir industry and is on the verge of being tatted. Which is a shame. Entrance fees to see his work are extortionate. And yet the masses come. And pay. Too many of them.

Earlier this year, the city of Barcelona approved a new law to limit the number of tourists coming to the city.  People took to the streets in protest over the collateral damage of too many tourists – soaring rents and property prices, increasing numbers of evictions, lack of parking facilities, etc. Add these to the rising costs of eating out and the low salaries paid in the tourist sector, the locals have a gripe or three.



Market mecca

Barcelona is a veritable mecca for shoppers. The city is big on leather, big on recycling, and big on style. It more than makes up for the usual high-street cohort of Zara, H&M, Mango, and the like, with a host of small boutique designers that smack of individuality.

But the markets are where it’s at. La Boqueria (Rambla 91) is probably the best known of what’s on offer but if you’ve been spoiled by produce markets in Budapest as I’ve been, it’s just another day at the stalls. Nope. It was the fleas I was after. Other people’s junk. Other people’s treasures. And the place to go is what’s billed as one of Europe’s biggest flea markets – Mercat dels Entants (Carrer de los Castillejos 158).

While there’s the usual dose of tat – both Chinese and Turkish – there is plenty to look at. Morning auctions bring collectors from all over searching for a bargain. Had I had checked luggage, I could have done serious damage. It’s a brilliant place to spend a few hours.

Over on Placa Real, we stumbled across a craft market where everything was made from recycled stuff – bags, jewellery, clothes – everything there had once been something else. The last time I was in the city, many many years ago, we stayed in a boarding house on the Real. Each night, we’d nightcap in what was then the tiny Glacier bar before heading to the Pipa Club. The Glacier has now expanded and the Pipa Club, with its collection of Sherlock Holmes’s pipes, has a sign outside letting the world know it’s there. Back in the day, it was only for those who didn’t need to be told. Street entertainment in the city is good – particularly the acrobats. A glass of cava to sip on, some sunshine to bake in, and an acrobatic display to keep you entertained. Not a bad way to pass an hour.

And if it’s art you’re looking for, there’s no shortage of art markets either. The one we found was the Mercadillo de la Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol i del Pi. What was meant to be a quick buzz around to see if anything leapt off the easel screaming my name, turned into a buy. An original watercolour – boats on a beach in black and white by  Jordi Serrat Jurado. Having walls has unleashed a madness in me. I have bookshelves of unread books and now I am accumulating tubes of unframed paintings.

That said, it was a lovely way to spend the day.


The separation of person and passport

passportMy greatest fear, as a traveller, was realised last week. For years, I’ve broken out in a cold sweat when hotel receptionists ask me for my passport and tell me that I can pick it up in the morning. I always insist on waiting. It’s as if I’m joined to it by some invisible umbilical cord and live in dread of postpartum depression.

A few years ago, on the sleeper train from Cologne to Vienna, I had to surrender my precious baby overnight. Intellectually, I knew I was in Europe. I knew there was little trouble I could get into without it. It wasn’t as if I was going to be carted off in the middle of the night and dumped in a ditch, or sold as a white slave to some drooling turnip farmer with one tooth and a vivid imagination. I knew this and yet not having my passport kept me awake – all night.

Passportless in Las Palmas

Last week, somewhere between getting on the plane at Berlin airport and arriving at Hotel Verol in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, my passport disappeared. I recall showing it to the chap as I boarded the plane. But after that … nada.  When I was asked for my passport at check in, I reached for where it should have been to find it wasn’t there. A subsequent search of every pocket grew increasingly frantic each time I came up empty, and soon had me hyperventilating. Through a haze of tears I heard the male receptionist calmly telling me to breathe deeply. This was Wednesday. I was due to leave for Budapest on Sunday with a six-hour layover before heading to Malta bright and early Monday morning. And I had no passport.

My first call was to the unflappable Karin Bryce of Travel Unlimited who suggested I go back to the airport and check with the handling agent. My second call was to my brother in Dublin who knows a thing or two about immigration laws. His worst-case scenario was that he could claim me in Dublin on Sunday.  In the meantime, he directed me to Lost and Found.

Airline staff in control

But wait a minute! I was in the Schengen Zone. I didn’t need a passport. I hadn’t gone through any passport control. All I had to do was satisfy the airline that I was who I said I was. I just needed to get on the plane. But I had no passport. And I had no driver’s license. And I had no proof that I lived in Hungary. I’d helpfully left all other forms of ID at home … in case I lost them.

I’m not stupid. I knew it was simply a matter of getting some passport photos at the bus station kiosk, going to the Irish consulate in the morning, getting a temporary passport, and then applying for a new one, once back in Dublin later this month. A, B, C, D. Simple. Uncomplicated. Yet when I failed to unearth anything at the airport, I did what any self-respecting woman of my age, intellect, and general capability should never admit to doing – I went back to my hotel room and bawled, hysterically, for an hour.  Deep down, on some weird level, I felt as if my identity had been stolen, as if I had been kidnapped, as if I was no longer sure who I was because I couldn’t prove it to anyone. I was irrationally terrified and so completely alone.

Dependency on a piece of paper

How dependent we have become on pieces of paper, on little books with coloured covers in which we track our progress through the world. History is littered with accounts of letters of passage given by a ruler to an envoy asking for safe passage. Somewhere in Britain there’s a passport that was issued on 18 June 1641 signed by Charles I. But it wasn’t until World War I that passports were generally required for international travel.

I still recall when the old Irish hard-backed green passport was discontinued in favour of the soft-backed burgundy EU version. I remember feeling a little less Irish as a result of this convergence of colour and thinning of paper. I didn’t want to be a limp burgundy European; I wanted to be solid, green and Irish (mind you, I’m sure there are those who still think I’m both!).

Having unearthed a new fixation on passports, I can now state with some authority that the Nicaraguan passport has 89 security features and, according to The Guardian is one of the ‘least forgeable documents in the world’. Whereas the poor Israeli document is one of the most useless; it’s not accepted by 25 countries including Cuba and North Korea.

So back to me and my breakdown. The airline found my passport and called the hotel to let me know. Life was restored to near normal. Experiencing that gut-wrenching fear of being stateless on such a tiny, insignificant scale, has engendered in me a whole new empathy for refugees and those who don’t have passports to lose. It’s also taught me about vulnerability and shown me a whole new side of me.

First published in the Budapest Times 8 February 2013

Spanish humour

IMG_2589 (618x800)When I don’t have anyone to talk to, except myself, and having nothing good to read either, I tend to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.  This is a long-standing habit, not necessarily one I’m particularly proud of – but I figure that as long as I don’t mention names or give descriptions that would land anyone into a police line-up, it’s a free world.

There’s nothing quite like a holiday to bring out the best (or worst) in people and from my lonely vantage point – Zone 7 of Playa de las Canteras – I was quite happy that I didn’t have a sparring partner to hand.

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People say the most idiotic things. And, loathe though I am to admit it, women are the worst culprits. This need to fill the silence and say something just to check to be sure that their man is still alive must drive many a sane man, mad. Mind you, I know a couple or four men who can’t stand the sound of silence, either.

‘Isn’t that a lovely beach, John’.
Where’s poor John to take that opening volley?
‘It is, love.’

‘Should I read my book or my mag, Dave?’
‘Your book – you’ve been wanting to finish it for ages.’
‘You’re right – I’ll just have a flick through the mag first though…’
Deep sigh from Dave masked by rustling of his newspaper…

You see all sorts of couples. Those who are on their first holiday abroad together and on their best behaviour, their conversation is punctuated with lots of ‘I don’t mind… ‘ and ‘Whatever you like….’  Those who know each other inside and out who don’t need to talk but communicate rather with raised eyebrows, shrugs, and nods of the head. Those who are on the brink of breaking up and are using the holiday as a last effort at holding it all together. Conversation here is punctuated by digs in ribs, derisive snorts, and rattling ice cubes.

It’s the couples who laIMG_2548 (723x800)ugh that are the most amusing to watch – and funnily enough, they were mostly Spanish. Subsequent investigation has revealed that the Spanish are quite famous for their sense of humour. And depending on which blogs you read, you’ll find this described as everything from cheesy to genius. And back in 1957, a sense of humour was actually put on trial.

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If you’re in Las Palmas, drop by the Museo Elder de la Ciencia y la Tecnología whose motto is ‘it is forbidden not to touch’ and check out their humour commentary exhibition outside.

Selling body parts on the steps of the Basilica

IMG_2531 (600x800)Saturday in Las Palmas was spent trying to find a pub that was showing the Ireland/Wales match. The first Irish pub I found looked as if it had closed shortly after it opened back in 1996. So I took a bus to the old town where I had vague memories of passing a Guinness sign the other day. I eventually found it. They had one small TV and no rugby. Helpful as ever, one of the locals gave me another address to try – a sports bar where I could have watched everthing from skiing to showjumping, but no rugby. So I went to Tourist Information and as a result of the helpfulness that is so part of the service/tourism culture on the island, I tried three other places. I eventually gave up and treated myself to a cod and asparagus lunch in the shadow of Santa Anna cathedral – trading one religion for another.

IMG_2592 (597x800)I spent the day talking to myself; wondering where to go, what to do next. When it got a little too much, I stopped for coffee and a cava, marvelling at the occasional ‘old and lovely’ amidst the ‘new and not so lovely’. I stumbled across a few tiled masterpieces and some wrought-iron bandstands that were just crying out for a brass band. Away from the beach area, I began to get a feel for how the island used to be; a sense of what living here pre-tourism must have been like: stylish and genteel.

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While Las Palmas has its share of high street shops that have become part and parcel of cityscapes across Europe, it also has its fair share of boutiques – designer stores that proudly display their ‘Made in Spain’ labels. I couldn’t quite get the hang of what appears to be a special shopping day when prices on the labels don’t seem to matter. But as the final bill was a lot less than my math made it, I really didn’t need an explanation.

My second (and only other item) on today’s agenda was to get mass. I’d scoped out the church earlier and arrived in good time to see the oddest thing in progress. A woman, carrying a large crucifix, followed by a priest holding  a lit candle, headed a procession of candle-bearing mass-goers up and down the aisles of the church. This was a first for me. But lo and behold,  2 February in the Eastern Orthodox Church and some Eastern Catholic Churches is one of the twelve Great Feasts aka Candlemas. Apparently, this is also the day on which the Churching of Women happens (another new one on me): a ceremony where new mothers are blessed. The ceremony includes thanksgiving for the woman’s survival of childbirth, and is performed even when the child is stillborn, or has died unbaptized. And it was here, apparently, that Our Lady appeared in a pine tree. Loathe though I am to quote Wikipedia, it does have this to say:

The story of Nuestra Señora del Pino (Our Lady of the Pine) is a fascinating one. At the site of the present-day Basilica, the image of the virgin herself is said to have appeared in a pine tree on 8 September 1492 to the first Bishop of Gran Canaria, Juan Frías. Said to possess healing qualities, Nuestra Señora del Pino has become the patron saint of the island. On the steps outside the Basilica it is possible to buy wax models of every part of the human body that can be offered for healing. The figure itself is extraordinary. It is said that one side of the face is smiling and the other side is sad. The figure is bedecked with jewels, although not as many as there were before the robbery in 1975.  I went in the side door, so missed the body parts!

IMG_2422 (591x800)The Canary islands were originally inhabited by Guanches, an aboriginal Berber people. On Gran Canaria, suicide was regarded as honourable. Whenever a new king was installed, one of his subjects willingly honoured the occasion by throwing himself over a precipice (as depicted by this statue in the grounds of the Santa Catalina hotel. [Spanish royalty apparently stay here when visiting the island and I wonder how many willing subjects they’d find to continue this tradition.] And it’s another first me for me: a monument to suicide.

IMG_2426 (800x598)It’s an odd place. It seems as if it’s not quite sure what it should be. Half urban beach semi-circled by tall hotels; half old world charm and beauty. Perhaps I just don’t ‘get’ Spain; I didn’t take to Madrid much either.

Mindyou, it’s been a lovely few days. The Hotel Verol is perfectly situated and the staff couldn’t be more helpful. That not so remarkable really as everyone (apart from the formidable, stylishly dressed middle-aged dowagers, hair-sprayed to within an inch of their lives) is helpful. They’ve certainly got the hang of this tourism lark.

Saturday, 2nd February, 8.39pm has come and gone. Now let’s wait and see what happens next.

2013 Grateful 48

A while back, taking  a rare full day off when in Malta, I tried my damndest to relax. I went down to the pool and lay on the sunlounger and was all set to alternate reading and sleeping and swimming. I had my shades, my lotion, my book. Not 20 minutes later, I had ants in my pants – not literally – I just couldn’t lie still. I couldn’t relax. Given that there was once a time in my life when lying around in the sun with nothing to do and all day to do it would have been dream come true, I found this a little disturbing.

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Las Palmas might not be my holiday destinati0n of choice, but for the last two days, I’ve rediscovered the joy of doing nothing. Nothing that matters. Yes, I’ve turned on my computer for a couple of hours each morning and did what I needed to do, but then I shut it down. And I switched off my phone. I effectively ‘went dark’ for hours on end. And what’s more important, I didn’t worry once that I had missed something; that there was something else I should have been doing.

IMG_2475 (600x800)Thursday, I took the bus tour – twice. I wandered around, stopped for coffee, bought and wrote some postcards, and generally did what I wanted to do, when I wanted to do it. Nothing bothered me. I had no schedule, no meetings (virtual or otherwise), no agenda. My time belonged to me – all of it. The tour bus skipped its last tour and as I sat waiting for 45 minutes for a bus that would never show up, I wasn’t the slightest bit agitated. Had I had a mirror in my bag, I’d have pulled it out just to double-check that I was me. Instead, I sat watching some youngs lads play amidst some unconcerned pidgeons. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve been away on my own in a place I’ve not been to before  – and not been working. And I’m as unconcerned as those pidgeons.

IMG_2535 (600x800)I ran into Néstor Álamo Hernández (Guía, 27 de febrero de 1906 — Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, 24 de marzo de 1994) – a Spanish composer, author, and lawyer, and was reminded again of the joy to be had from reading a book. So Friday, I took myself to the beach, Playa de las Canteras. It’s one of the top urban beaches in Spain and runs for 3km. It sits literally steps from my hotel. I managed to find a spot in Zone 7 (yes, it’s all zoned – a busy spot). I paid my €3 for the sunlounger, borrowed the only book in English from the book table (how civilised), and with the occasional beer for the vendor walking the beach, I set out, a little nervously, to do nothing. To relax. I read, I got in the water. I read some more. And then back into the sea. I took a break for a lunch of fresh mussels and local beer and then back to the hard work of doing nothing. It dawned on me about 4.45 as I finished my book and replaced it on the communal table that this has been the first day in a long, long time where I’ve done nothing…

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IMG_2577 (600x800)I went back to the hotel, took a shower, had a nap and then out to see what Day 1 of the 17-day-long Carnival de las Palmas had to offer (apparently it’s second only to the Rio Carnival, when it comes to spectacular revelry). As large crowds are not my scene, I beat a leisurely retreat back to the beach to dine on fresh prawns, courgettes and those spectacular Canarian potatoes.

This week started out a little manic: short on sleep, short on patience, and definitely short on humour. But it’s turned itself around. I, for one, am grateful that all is not lost. I still know how to relax. All I need is a little more practice.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

Built for the sun

IMG_2427 (591x800)If ever a city was built for the sun, Las Palmas was. The locals will tell you that it only rains 10 days a year on the island of Gran Canaria and whether this is true or not is neither here nor there. Buildings which, to my mind, would be eyesores anywhere else, seem to blend in beautifully – or perhaps are made beautiful – because they reflect the sun. It’s a little like what I imagine a mirage to be – shaky images so real that you think they’re a design feature until you look across the road and see the real thing, alive and well, made of bricks and mortar. There’s no holding back with the colour palette, either.

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Images of the beautiful island of Burano near Venice and holiday cottages in the West of Ireland come to mind. In the former, the colour is quirky; in the latter, it’s plain gaudy. Yet here in Las Palmas, it seems so natural. It has to be the sun.

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I don’t have the jargon to talk sensibly about the architecture but I know enough to realise that the city planners have been on holiday for a long time. Old and new sit side by side and perfect harmony is noticeable by its absence. And yet even that isn’t as upsetting for me as it has been in other cities I’ve been to. Perhaps it’s the audacity of the colours – the statements the bright greens and yellows and purples make. Given that Las Palmas is just a mere 500 years old, it might well be still enjoying its teenage rebellion.

IMG_2527 (578x800)While everyone here seems to smoke and cigarettes are ridiculously priced at €1.20 a pack, I’ve not had a whiff of anything more toxic. Perhaps just as well, really. I can’t imagine being on LSD or some other mind-altering substance when, clean and sober, it takes me  a few minutes to decide if what I’m seeing is real or just a reflection of reality.  And it’s happened more than once or twice. It could well be the caffeine though, as I can’t resist a cafe con leche. Even the drabbest bus terminal’s coffee rates. [As a not so complete aside, the local name for a bus is a guagua – what a great word!]

IMG_2469 (600x800)There’s no shortage of greenery in this, Spain’s seventh-largest city. The most popular trees are laurel and palm and the green is picked up in a lot of building design. Skate parks abound and every flat open square is teeming with young and old on skate boards and roller blades trying to outdo each other or master that one set of steps they keep tripping on. I saw one chap (not all that much younger than I am) take three falls before he managed to leap a set of four steps and stay upright. Each to their own, I say. Whatever blings your blade. That and the myriad exercise machines lined up along the prom must deliver quite an active set of a locals and a fitter set of tourists than your average package resort. I even saw a chap reading the odometer on a city running machine last night. Either the city is doing a usage survey or Las Palmas has taken train spotting one step further.

It’s all about the emphasis

Isn’t it odd how, when for all your reasoning life, you’ve heard a word pronounced in one way, and then you hear it, from a native-speaker, pronounced another? And it sounds better? Since I first visited the Canary Islands back in the mid-1980s, they’ve been the Canary Islands – CaNARY. And yet today, all day, I’ve been hearing CANary.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria harbour

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria harbour

I’m on Gran Canaria for a few days because a man in the know suggested that it would be good for me to be here at 8.39pm on 2 February. We will see. [It’s a little like a stop-over to something great – just like when the sailors of old would stop here before crossing the Atlantic, a tradition first started over 500 years ago when Christopher Columbus himself inaugurated it.] I say that lest you think it was my holiday destination of choice. It wasn’t and would never feature on my list of top 20 places to go.

Playa de las Canteras

Playa de las Canteras

My first ever sun holiday to Playa del Ingés (another town on the island of Gran Canaria) lasted two weeks; the novelty of being away from home  and in the sun wore off on Day 6 when boredom set in. It was my last sun holiday, too. It’s not the sun I object to (although I’m not a huge fan); it’s the packaging. The whole package tour thing. This time, like last time, the same chap has appeared in my vicinty for dinner two nights in a row. Last time can be explained. This time, it’s a little irritating. If I see him again tomorrow night, I’ll really begin to wonder. But it’s an island so this might be expected – but so odd that we’re on the same culinary cycle, don’t you think?

Sardines by the sea

Sardines by the sea

I’m staying in Las Palmas, in the north-east corner of the island and it’s buzzing. Or it was, last night, when Las Palmas played Roma. Tapas is the food of choice and obviously they know what they’re doing. I need to stop trying to order in Hungarian though as it’s confusing the locals. Should the man in the know not be so knowing after all, at least the food is worth the trip!

View from the dinner table

View from the dinner table

For all its nasty packaging, it’s a great place for self-affirmation. To see women with cellulitic thighs braving the streets in shorter-than-short shorts has me thinking ‘Way to go, sister’. But I draw the line at middle-aged men in thong speedos. That’s the stuff nightmares are made of. At least, tomorrow, when I hit the beach, I’ll be lost amidst the hundreds of others soaking up the 25 degree sun. It promises to be an experience in personal space.